Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lit Charts

Calling all English teachers! You need to read this!

Can I confess something? I might be the only [ex-] English teacher in the world who doesn't like "classic" novels. I know that a novel receives "classic" status when the literary world decides it's never going to go "out of style," but I kind-of think that's hogwash. I think that good readers can find a way to connect to almost any text at almost any time, but I don't think that necessarily makes the text "classic."

Take Of Mice and Men, for example. While it's a fine story, and every reader can relate to friendship, hardship, and tough decisions, let's face it: the language isn't reader-friendly to everyone who opens the book. I happened to read it with a class in Oklahoma, but even our southern drawl wasn't twangy enough for my students to understand the novel without reading it aloud and thinking deeply about each sentence.

Another example: Romeo and Juliet. While I think almost everyone experiences love at some point in his or her life, and I think all teenagers can relate to restrictive parents and rebelling against them, the language in that play in extremely outdated. My class ended up reading the prologue + the first couple of scenes, but after that, we watched the movie in class (because I believe plays are meant to be watched). I had to pause it frequently to explain the vernacular and, consequently, the entire plot of the play.

I realize that part of the job of an English teacher is to explain complicated text, and I am fully up for the challenge. But I do think that traditionally "classic" texts turn kids off from reading unless you are a truly gifted teacher. I, for one, would never pick up a classic novel just for the fun of it, so I almost felt like a hypocrite when I have to teach such works. (Feel free to comment on this issue; I would love to hear your thoughts about teaching "classic" novels!)

But there are some districts that require English teachers to teach very specific works -- often, classic literature. If it is a district-mandated policy, it's hard to ignore it! I've recommended Spark Notes to my students in the past with no shame. (I feel that everyone deserves to understand the class work. I did make sure to tell students that just reading the summary was not enough to help them pass the exam, though. ;) If I'm totally honest with everyone, there have been times in the past (not just as a student) where I have referred to summarizing websites myself in order to get a deeper understanding of what I was reading.

Enter Lit Charts.

This website has about 40 different novels in their database so far, and it looks like they're in the process of adding more. (There's even a "requests" page at the bottom of their site so that users can request new novels to add to their list!)

Requests page

Lit Charts is a lot like Spark Notes in that it provides a summary, an explanation of characters, some common themes and symbols that the author included, etc. It also provides a chapter-by-chapter summary, along with important quotes and a theme tracker. The beauty of this website is that everything is free, and, as Apple would say, "There's an app for that."

As you can see, there are 3 options for every novel: "read online," "printable PDF," and "iPhone app." I'm particularly interested in those last 2 options...


The printable PDF is wonderful! I just downloaded the Animal Farm PDF, and I was delighted to see 8 pages chock-full of information! I love that it prints neatly and that I can laminate it to post in the classroom or pass around during free time.

The iPhone app feature is very intriguing, as well. While iPhone users can access 3G data any time they want, there is sometimes the issue of no internet access. These days, most iPhone users are hesitant to just whip out their phone and use their data plans (courtesy of limited data plans or non-hotspot locations), which I feel prevents iPhone users from using their device to its fullest capability. The good news is, the apps offered at Lit Charts are free and do not require internet or data plan access in order to use them (after the initial download). These could help students study on the fly or help them to clear confusion after reading a particular chapter. If a student has access to iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch, and this application is free to download, there's absolutely no reason the student couldn't download it and use it to study!

Also, I think this would be a great (and portable) tool with which to study for AP exams (to get college credit)! Conduct a study group after school and allow every student to study a Lit Chart. Conduct discussions with students over what they read, and then give practice writing prompts for the novels they studied.

For novels that haven't yet appeared on Lit Charts' website, why not challenge your students to make their own lit charts for their book, instead of just waiting for the company to add a new novel? Students could use a pre-made chart as a template and inspiration for their own chart. (After all, isn't teaching something the best way to learn it?)

For the record: I'm not suggesting that summarizing charts like these should ever take the place of actual reading. However, since I'm mostly in favor of reading more modern literature in these 21st century classrooms, I feel like sites such as Lit Charts can help students (and teachers) "get through" these classic works, as the language, setting, and character actions do not always make sense to this generation. 

I think this is such a simple way to provide free and easy technological access to materials in your English classroom. Would you consider introducing this website to your students?

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